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Trump's support for the death penalty puts him on wrong side of history

Originally published on The Hill

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Our president is the same man who once paid $85,000 for full-page adsin the top four New York Daily newspapers to loudly express his wish: "Bring Back the Death Penalty!'

He is perhaps the loudest proponent of capital punishment to ever take office. Yet, ironically, in the year he got elected, the total number of executions in this country only amounted to twenty -- a 25-year low.

Further, with only 30 new death sentences imposed in 2016, America experienced the lowest number of new death row inmates since the reinstatement of the sentence in 1976. Will executions ramp up again over the next four years? With a death penalty advocate as the leader of our land, what is happening with capital punishment in America in these first few months?

 

The following is a state-by-state breakdown of current capital punishment activity since the arrival of President Trump.

Alabama: Known as the final holdout of state's that allow judges to override a jury when sentencing capital murder cases, Alabama passed a bill through their Senate last month to change this practice. It is unclear what will happen to the more than half of the 194 improperly sentenced prisoners currently residing on their death row.

Arizona: After the state's end-of-year ban on the use of Midazolam -- the current, but controversial, sedative of choice in executions across the country -- they are scrambling for an alternative. In what appears to be a desperate sidestep to save their death penalty, last month they introduced a new protocol that invites capital defense attorneys to obtain execution drugs on behalf of their condemned clients. As Dale Baich, from the Federal Public Defender's Office in Arizona put it, "This is a bizarre notion that calls for actions that are both illegal and impossible." Executions are on hold.

California: After the passing Proposition 66 in the last election, an historic measure designed to "fix" the state's death penalty by speeding up the appeals process, the state has hit two substantial snags. First, the California Supreme Court halted the reforms before they took effect to consider a challenge brought about by the state's former attorney general that the measure would disrupt the courts, cost more money, and result in attorneys cutting corners to keep up. The bigger setback, however, came from the state's Office of Administrative law, which, in January, rejected the new lethal injection protocol proposed by the California Department of Corrections, citing inadequacies, inconsistency, and numerous ambiguities. Executions remain on hold.

Colorado: Attempts to repeal the state's death penalty failed along party lines last month. This is despite the fact that only 3 people reside on Colorado's death row, the death chamber has gone unused in nearly 20 years, and estimates hold that the cost of maintaining the penalty cost Colorado taxpayers $5-10 million annually. There is currently a moratorium on all executions.

Florida: One step ahead of Alabama, state legislators announced last month that they are finally moving ahead with a measure that would require a unanimous jury verdict in death penalty cases. This leaves nearly 400 condemned prisoners — the second largest death row population — in limbo. As this particular issue has yet to be addressed in courts, Florida executions are unlikely to resume anytime soon.

Georgia: Executing more prisoners than any state in 2016 -- at 9, accounting for nearly half of all executions last year and outpacing Texas by a couple -- the death penalty in Georgia seems to be as healthy as ever. However, according to Mark Hyden, from the Georgia Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty, a Project of EJUSA, "Georgia's death penalty is dwindling so quickly that in a few years it may exist in name only." There are currently no inmates eligible for execution in 2017.

Kansas: In January, eight Republican and seven Democratic lawmakers introduced a bill to abolish their death penalty. With bipartisan support, without an execution since 1965, and with only 10 on death row, there may never be another execution in Kansas.

Kentucky: Bipartisan House and Senate bills have been introduced to limit the maximum punishment in Kentucky to life without the possibility of parole.

Missouri: In February, the state's appellate court ruled that prison officials are not obligated to reveal the source of the drugs they use for executions, clearing the way for executions to resume.

Mississippi: After an inability to acquire lethal injection drugs, state lawmakers have proposed legislation that would add alternative means of execution, including the gas chamber, a firing squad and electrocution. In February, a state senate committee shot down the firing squad, leaving the two other proposed methods still up for debate. Executions are on hold.

Montana: After a bill to abolish the death penalty narrowly failed along party lines in the last session, a Republican lawmaker introduced a new bill to repeal the penalty in this session. With bipartisan support, no access to lethal injection drugs, and a death row population of two, this bill seems to have a good chance of advancing.

Nebraska: Voters approved the reinstatement of their death penalty in the last election (by 61 percent). However, without the drugs needed to actually carry out an execution, lawmakers are considering a bill that would shield the identities of future drug sources. There are currently no executions scheduled.

Nevada: A repeal effort is currently under consideration in the Nevada Assembly. The state recently spent $900,000 creating a new execution chamber, but has been unable to carry out any executions because it has not been able to acquire lethal injection drugs.

New Hampshire: The only New England state with capital punishment still on the books is considering a bill to expand the eligibility for its penalty that would include anyone convicted of killing a minor. New Hampshire only has one person on death row and has not executed anyone since 1939.

Ohio: A federal judge ruled in February that the state's new three-drug lethal injection process is unconstitutional, citing a "substantial risk of serious harm." Ohio is one of the few states that have enough drugs to carry out executions. But without a legal protocol, it is unlikely that they'll be able to use them. Eight executions have already been stayed this year.

Oklahoma: The U.S. Supreme Court cleared Oklahoma to use the controversial sedative midazolam in executions, but due to further legal challenges, ongoing concerns about the state's protocol and its inability to procure the needed drugs, executions have remained on hold.

Oregon: Governor Kate Brown reaffirmed her decision to continue a moratorium on executions in Oregon during her new term. Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty are currently conducting a campaign to raise awareness in preparation for a ballot measure to repeal the penalty.

Pennsylvania: Governor Tom Wolf placed a moratorium on executions in 2016 pending a long-anticipated release of a bipartisan commission report examining the state's death penalty. Another deadline for the report was missed in January, which is now three years overdue. It is unlikely that any of the 175 inmates on death row in Pennsylvania will face their sentence anytime soon.

Texas: After their fewest executions in over a decade last year (seven), Texas carried out the nation's first execution in 2017. However, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are calling for death penalty reform including the repeal of the "law of parties," which holds defendants responsible if they were involved in a crime that resulted in a murder, even if they weren't directly involved in the killing. They have previously executed five people under this statute. Texas is currently suing the Food and Drug Administration over impounded drugs it needs for future executions. It remains to be seen if Trump's new FDA commissioner appointment will stand down on the opposition to the importation of lethal injection drugs.

Utah: Without the ability to obtain lethal injection drugs, Utah re-adopted the firing squad method. There are bills both for and against the death penalty in Utah's legislature to be considered this year. No executions are scheduled.

Virginia: As one of the handful of states that shield lethal injection drug sellers from the public record, Virginia became the second state to execute a prisoner in 2017. There are six remaining death row inmates in the state.

Washington: Attempts to abolish the state's death penalty this year have already failed. But as one of four states that have a moratorium on executions, and with Governor Inslee who has vowed to not allow an execution during his term, there will be no executions anytime soon.

The death penalty continues to suffer from the same maladies that have caused declines in both executions and the seeking of the death penalty. With repeal efforts ramping up across the nation and the ongoing inability to obtain drugs in most states, along with many other problems, it does not appear that the health of the death penalty will improve anytime soon.

Perhaps President Trump will need to purchase a lot more ad space to promote the use of the death penalty. Or maybe it's finally time to put an end to the madness.

Bianca Clark is the director of Prison Lives, a 501(C)(3) non-profit organization established to educate and enable prisoners to be productive individuals while incarcerated for a positive existence both inside and outside of prison life. 

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